Benefactor 1

The gull called from atop the tower. Kio imagined wringing its neck.

Academically, he knew that it was expected, even encouraged, that birds should call. It was natural that the call should carry across the entire castle. Kio was even at peace with a sound he had once found comforting and beautiful–the very definition of serenity–suddenly reminded him of a drill being pressed into his temple and run backwards at a very low speed.

People changed. So did serenity.

What he couldn’t come to grips with was this bird feeling the need to call out news across the sky at all hours. He hadn’t had a decent sleep in weeks. And his bar for decent was lower than the Big Island to begin with.

He rolled over, pulling the blanket around his head. Everything was too loud and the sun was rising too early. He’d been sleeping indoors, in the room where he and Karla had met to discuss the implosion of their life support in the Inner Citadel. It was a cozy place, its windows not too large, its furnishings not too torn up by ten years of intermittent neglect.

And it was saturated with memories of her.

Kio threw the covers off, sat up and rubbed his eyes. He was trying to build a life alone, trying to be comfortable, yet Karla’s absence kept wedging itself back in, a thousand little ways over only a few hours. The chores should only have been twice as hard, but having to cover entire vegetable beds wore him out quickly, and when he turned to complain, he only saw clouds drifting far off. When part of the aqueduct slipped loose, he had to carry all his tools with him when he climbed up, without anyone to work the bosun’s chair they usually used. And at last, when the work was done, he hastened to the library to read so he wouldn’t have to listen to the wind.

He would never have slept in a bedroom with her nearby. Last night, though, when he’d tried to sleep in the mist garden, he’d woken up in the middle of the night.

Before even fully awaking, Kio had drawn his knees up to his chest. There were no walls to the garden–the sky­ was all around him, massive and dark and endless. Its dimensions had no limits. It had swallowed him, and he tumbled, spinning through a void so complete he seemed to be the only living creature in the world.

That was the moment he realized Karla had always been his wall against the sky. From then on, he slept indoors.

No, he thought as he pulled furs from the pile in the corner and haphazardly donned them, I’m not just lonely. Lonely was a whole, one whole. Kio had been halved. The part of him that knew how to be happy and joyful and brave had winged away into the sky, and he was left here to cope.

He grabbed a fistful of jerky from a drawer and left the room, trying to remember what he had to do today.

Pausing in the hallway to wait out a sudden rush of blood to his head, he reflected he still thought he’d made the right decision. He still would have told Karla to go.

Even knowing he’d never be able to follow her.

Stupid. Stupid worthless cat.

But it made him feel better, the tiniest ember of warmth, that she’d made it. His first few hours hadn’t been all grief.

Except when that damn bird kept squawking. Which was always. All the time. Forever.

This had happened before, with other birds taking a bizarre liking to some part of the castle. He hadn’t minded then. Notwithstanding the mushroom thing.

But with Karla around, everything was easier to focus on: just knowing she was elsewhere in the castle made it easier for him to grease gears or dig through the densest ancient tome the library had to offer. Now, the only things he wanted to focus on were the utter emptiness of the castle and the similar emptiness of the sky and how he really had no evidence Karla had even survived her flight to the surface.

And when he thought about that, he conjured up images he didn’t even want to repeat to himself. So the gull’s constant cries sticking in his craw could have been his brain’s defence mechanism.

After recovering, he made it a few steps before another chorus started up. Long cries. Short. No recognizable pattern except for the piercing volume.

Kio shook off another wave of nausea. Just like that, he had a job for the day.

He was going to assassinate a seagull.

He dismantled the Kiobot without shedding a tear. Proud of it as he was, he needed a mobile launcher with the damn spear still in it. Using their counterweight jugs, he hauled the launcher up the side of the castle, then clambered up the vines after it.

Mounting the edge of the reservoir basin, he checked for bone dragons out of habit, then craned his neck up. There, anchored to a battlement on the north tower and singing its heart out, was the enemy.

Kio buckled the spear gun onto his back, then shuffled silently across the basin rim. It wouldn’t do to frighten the bird off only to have it return half an hour later. He held his breath as he shifted the heavy stone door an inch at a time, letting it out only when he was safely over the threshold.

Heavy doors. Platforms you could only reach via gears or sacrilege. Oxygen from vines that would wither away if you didn’t tend to them daily. Why was everything on this castle so useless? Had the Rokhshan never once thought about making the place livable?

Benefactor! came a marauding thought. I want to leave!

Tiptoeing up the stone steps, he felt a sudden surge of resentment for Karla. How dare fortune fall on them so unevenly? Who decided he’d be stuck as a housecat, while she got wings?

At the halfway point of the spiral staircase, he crept into the wide open room around the violet crystal. His breath caught. His counterrunes remained scratched into the crystal’s base, over the runes that charged it with its original power.

He and Karla had nearly died three different ways in this room, in the span of a couple of minutes. One bore the line Karla had scratched across it to drag their atmosphere back after the bone dragon had been thrown away.

Of a sudden, the launcher grew intolerably heavy on his back. He set it down, wary, weary. What had he been saying to himself? How messed up was it that he was chasing a bird right now as a weird subornation of his resentment that Karla had gotten out, had left him behind? How much more messed up that he was skulking around thinking these things while she could be–

“It’s not weird,” he said aloud to the crystal. “The bird is annoying. And I want to kill it.”

The crystal glowed back, unmoved.

“I’m the lord of the Rokhshan!” Kio shouted. “I’m part of a noble line going back a thousand years! I can do what I like with any birds in my territory!”

The crystal glowed.

At the top of the stone staircase, he stopped again, making sure the tip of the spear didn’t clang against the trapdoor and announce him. Satisfied he was stalking well, he eased the hatch open with his shoulder.

His heart skipped three beats, then crammed them into one. The gull was there. It looked him dead in the eye, let out one more hateful squawk, and spread its wings.

Kio had the spear gun in hand without recalling taking it off his back. Dashing across the tower top, he braced the gun against the battlement, and sighted down at the bird gliding hard down across Nashido’s lower spires.

He breathed in, breathed out, and then fired.

He knew he’d landed the shot when he heard a squawk much shorter and sharper than the one he’d come to hate. Kio pumped his fist. “Yes!”

But his pride went sour when the seagull’s gray body failed to hit the ground. His prey was still alive!

Without pausing to think, he sprang up on the battlement. The bosun’s chair was dangling in the middle of the web of aqueduct pipes, past which the bird was fluttering its way to a landing.

He forgot the launcher in the jump. It fell the three stories into the reservoir, sloshing water across the basin. Kio himself hit the dangling plank of wood with both arms, which fell quickly–just quickly enough that any faster would have broken his legs in the fall.

Kicking off one aqueduct pipe, twisting away from another, Kio dropped to dangle with his arms and swung to reach the carved tile path among the towers.

His feet struck. He threw the chair away and looked around. Where was the bird?

A cry from below the stairs–it was fleeing into the Outer Citadel. Kio tore off. He wouldn’t let it escape.

Down the stairs, into the halls, past his bedroom. Where next? His home had grown more confusing in the lonely quiet, but a day on his own wasn’t enough to totally disorient him.

Was it?

The family’s rooms in the Outer Citadel had a few important windows in them, but otherwise hardly anything useful. He hadn’t gone in there since he was eight years old and ascertained none of them contained any books.

He really had no idea whether he was lost or not.

Another squawk called him onward–the bird was trapped. All he had to do was find his way through this warren of rooms.

He left the windows behind. Without sun, wishing he’d brought a light, Kio squinted through the dimness. He was in a small labyrinth of storage rooms, long since denuded of anything useful. Every step tossed up a thin layer of dust. When he sneezed, the bird cried back at him.

Using his right hand, Kio felt his way along the walls, mentally marking off every dead end. Surely there couldn’t be that much space in here–

–his foot crashed through the floor. Something hard scraped his leg, and he felt blood seep along it. The same instant a cawing, slashing mass of flapping feathers hurtled past his head, scattering fuzz and drops of blood.

A wound. Where the spear grazed it.

The bird was long gone before Kio remembered where he was. Absently, he reached down to touch the cut on his leg, and winced. But it felt shallow. He was out of poultice, though–would have to make more to wash it out.

A second later he realized what light he was using to examine himself: a window too small for the bird to escape through was letting the sun in. With its illumination, he could see where he’d stepped.

Kneeling confirmed his suspicious. The wooden floorboards had rotted through with all the moisture back here. When he tried to pull his foot out, however, he heard a strange rustling sound.

That’s not loose wood.

After freeing his leg, he reached into the hole. His fingers closed around a sheath of papers.

Perhaps he’d missed a book after all. Heart hammering for a reason he couldn’t name, he read the first line of ink he found.

Dear Karla, it said. I am so sorry.

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Monster 5

The air was warm in the pit under the tavern roof, but Karla still felt the temperature drop several degrees.

Calvin covered his mouth, perhaps sensing he’d said far too much, trying to put the words back. The silence rippled through the tavern pit as people whispered the words, then fell quiet, staring at Karla.

The world was faint–she was on autopilot, like Raven wound up. The drinkers multiplied until a few failed pilots nursing jugs of beer became a legion of orbiting satellites staring her down.

What did this guy know about her mother?

A pair of small hands grasped her waist: Jenny’s. “All right, I don’t know what anyone’s talking about,” the girl said, “but my friend and I have had a long night, and we need to crash upstairs. Calvin, does your dad have a room free?”

“I…” Calvin knelt down, gathering his tray, though beer was already soaking into the dirt floor. “She’s here. Rooms can wait…I mean she can have a room…”

He rose, turning pleadingly toward Griffin and Rose. “Tell them. Tell them Mara is back.”

The tavern consisted of two sides on one corner open to the street, raised about half a human’s height above the ground so the drinkers saw people’s legs moving back and forth past their eye level. The other two walls were the bar–just a row of long tables fronting stacks of barrels with beerand wine scrawled on them–and stairways up to the rooms on the second level. Innkeepers kept these for new arrivals to live in while they figured out how to live in the city.

Beyond the bar and the few tables set up on barrels, two stairways led up to street level. In three bounds, graceful as a deer, Rose sprang to the other one, her heavy wrench appearing from nowhere. “Nobody leaves.”

A chorus of leathery rasps whistled through the bar as several people stood from their mugs, drawing dirks and clubs to oppose her. Behind Karla and Jenny, Griffin pulled out his long knife. “Rose,” he asked uncertainly, “is he right?”

“Doesn’t matter.” Rose was somehow holding the entire pub’s gaze at once. “This place is under quarantine, as of right now. We let anyone know anyone who knew Mara is in here, McConnell’s bar gets crushed under the weight of five hundred desperate Rusters. Would your father want that, Calvin?”

The gawky young man, always looking younger and drunker than it seemed like he should be, shook his head.

Karla felt as though she was back in the sky, standing atop Nashido’s high tower without furs on. People’s stares were stripping her bare and she was frozen before them. All this was on her. They wanted something she couldn’t give.

Come on, said Kio’s voice in her ear. This is what I’d expect out of me. You’re a Harpooneer too, even if I’m not supposed to know what that means.

Just like that, the cold began to dissipate. Karla knew the truth: this was on her to defuse.

A tall boy who appeared barely older than her had somehow jimmied an arm of his chair, and stood, hefting it like a club. “Fine, then. We’ll just have to beat it out of her ourselves.”

“Simon, didn’t they kick you out of the city council hideout for being too dumb?” Jenny piped up. “That’s rough, man. They let Finn join.”

“Jenny,” Griff warned.

The lanky Simon wandered close enough for Karla to see the scars pockmarking his face. From rough landings, she thought, or from fights? He had a smell of moldy hops about him.

“How’d you get every single one of your people up to the sphere?” he demanded of her. “And how’d you get back?”

Karla adopted a bearing she imagined her revolutionary mother would have used–tall, expressionless, commanding–and stepped forward to meet him.

“I don’t appreciate being threatened,” she said. “If you want to know how I did it, you could ask nicely.”

“Asking nicely works better when there’s been some hittin’ first.” Simon smacked his chair-leg into his palm. The drinkers were mostly motionless at their tables, though some sat down, realizing this had gotten out of hand.

“You ever heard the story about the golden goose?” Karla asked. It had suddenly flashed into her mind from the picture books she and Kio had pored over as six-year-olds so they wouldn’t forget how to read.

“The hell you on about?” Simon clearly thought he would be beating someone by now.

“There’s a guy who brings home a magical goose that lays a golden egg every day.” Kio had thought a goose was a mythical creature until he found a more scientific illustration of one. “But soon just one lump of gold per day wasn’t enough for him. He knew the goose had to be keeping treasure from him inside its belly.”

She shuddered. The blood-red marks on the illustration for the next part had always freaked her out. “So he sliced it open, and inside, there was nothing but goose guts. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“You got a magic goose on the sphere?” Simon looked less angry and more impressed at this point.

Behind Karla, Jenny smacked her forehead. “No, moron. She means don’t beat her half to death or she’ll never spill her secret. You want to get to the sphere or not?”

Simon faltered.

A man near him sheathed his knife. Griff exhaled audibly.

“Yeah, don’t screw this up for us, people,” someone near the bar said. “We just got dealt a damn good hand. We start a fight, it sets fire to all the cards.”

“Exactly,” came a voice from the steps along the back wall.

Everyone turned. Grace McConnell, Calvin’s mother, strode down from the upstairs rooms, throwing axes strapped to her back.

“Exactly what?” Rose asked cautiously.

“Cards.” Grace winked and twirled a deck in one hand. “Everyone ought to stay for a round of five-suit and drinks on the house. Contingent on you giving my friends some peace and quiet upstairs.”

There was a long pause before Griff spoke up. “That would be…fine with us.”

Amid a general murmur of assent, Karla felt every one of her muscles relax at the same time, combined with another, pricklier feeling she couldn’t put a name too.

***

“That was amazing!” Jenny kept saying as they made their way upstairs. “It’s like you channeled her! Like you totally transformed!”

Karla stifled a laugh. Jenny had no idea just how much experience she had with transforming.

Something occurred to her. “Wait, aren’t you twelve? Did you ever meet my mother?”

“No!” Jenny replied. “I was two. But who cares? I feel like I have, now!”

Karla looked to both Rose and Griffin, but neither of them disagreed. A tiny but unavoidable well of grief opened within Karla: she shouldn’t have had to guess at her mother’s demeanor, right or otherwise.

She would never get to see Mara, even the way Jenny just had.

They paused on the stairs as Rose conferred briefly with the patrons sitting around one table in the corner. When she caught back up with them, she shook her head. “No news about the city council. But nothing seems blown up. We have to assume Adam and Sarah have the situation under control.”

The hallway upstairs was cramped but well-lit, with a swept wooden floor and lanterns hanging in brackets. Three doors, two on the same side, opened onto little rooms, each with a bed, a chair, a chamber pot, and a small window set high in the wall. Through the gap, Karla saw several gliders circling on an updraft, perhaps for one final desperate shot at Nashido.

Rose motioned for her to sit on the bed. Griff offered her the chair, and stood with his back to the wall, facing the window. Jenny sat on the floor, cross-legged, watching Karla.

For a while, nobody spoke, everyone trying to figure out how to start the conversation and exactly what conversation needed to be started. Karla took a second to bask in the feeling of not fearing for her life.

Soon, however, her desire to know overrode her need for peace. She looked around at all the faces looking back at her: sturdy, determined Rose, eager Jenny, cautiously fascinated Dr. Griffin.

These were good people. Good people she had found on the surface. And they had known Mara.

“Who was she?” she asked. “Who was my mother to all of you?”

Jenny clapped her hands. “Ooh, tell the story! I’d like to hear it again too.”

“What story?”

“It’s a good one! And then you can tell us yours.”

Sure, Karla thought. In a few hours I might be ready for that.

Griff’s arms stayed folded, but his eyes were awash with something, and it wasn’t all happy.

“It’s our story,” Rose answered at last. “The story of Freetown.”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Monster 4

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Sorry about any confusion–I post this on some other sites where I started later and am thus behind schedule. This explains why this chapter was briefly replaced with one from Arc 6. But it’s all fixed and all new now!

Karla climbed the trail between Jenny and the gray-haired man in the sodden white jacket she’d called Uncle Griff. Aunt Rose, a small woman who walked with her head going first, led the way uphill toward the lights of the town.

One foot in front of the other, Karla picked her way up the trail, running when Griff said to run, slowing when they could afford to take a break. She hardly noticed the grass under her shoes or the thousand organisms, totally new to her, that skittered out from under every pebble she kicked. She’d seen grass before anyway, on sky kingdoms, in the mist garden.

There was a shaking in her lungs, a trembling she was breathing in and forcing back out only with effort. It was the quaking of the battle between two towns: the one in her mind and the Rust Town she was nearing.

Since falling from the sky, she’d narrowly avoided being drowned, enslaved, and blown up. Now she was running from people who would hunt her down and put her in chains simply because they could–if they did it where nobody was watching. She and the others could hide, if they made it up the hill fast enough.

If the Big Island was the center of the world, what was all this business about an Emperor? Why hadn’t Master Ranson taken them into town to meet him? It had sounded like he’d wanted to put Karla and Jenny on a boat.

And why would the capital of the world have a name as off-putting, as skin-crawling, as Rust Town?

For that matter, if all the planes they’d ever seen had actually been trying to reach Nashido, how did they get built? Could an entire town really be populated with treasure hunters? And what was the crystal about, the one that looked so similar–in everything but color–to the ones that maintained the air pressure on Nashido?

Karla had questions, and she hoped Jenny, Griff, and Rose would be in an answering mood.

She decided to venture the first. “Where are we going?”

“Back to my workshop?” Griff suggested. “It’ll be cozy, but there’s room for all four of us.”

Rose shook her head and spoke without turning around. “Ranson’s boys won’t follow us there, but the city council might be out for revenge. We don’t know what happened to the other bombs.”

Karla glanced forward at Jenny, wondering if she planned to tell anyone else she was concealing one of those bombs under her shirt. But Jenny plodded on resolutely, only checking back every now and then to make sure the scarred and bloodied oarsmen were losing ground.

They did indeed look like they hadn’t shaken off the explosion well. The woman was helping the man sit, while the man was tearing his shirt into strips, both of them looking like they weren’t getting paid enough.

“Well, that’s heartening,” Griff said. “Almost enough to make you forget we might be about to find half the town blown up.”

“My infirmary’s compromised too, for the same reason.” Rose rubbed her eyes. “We need somewhere none of us have anything to do with.”

Won’t be a problem for me, Karla thought, through a feeling like a fish flopping in her gut.

“I know a place,” Jenny told them all. “Would help if we had some cover getting there, though.”

They were near the top of the hill now. A broad, rippling, moonlit sea stretched out in all but one direction, broken on the right by the crescent of snaggletooth mountains. The shadows were immense, the light thin. Karla shivered.

The trail ended in a flight of wooden steps that led up a sheer grass slope to a second flight. A row of torches atop the hill scattered warm light over the whole scene. Karla would never have used them on Nashido–half of them were worn through, and they looked like they’d been driven into the hillside by six different people, none of whom had spoken to each other–but Rose sprinted confidently up.

On the final landing with Karla, as though her words about cover had summoned them, Jenny gasped.

Karla did too. She couldn’t help it. She’d never seen the planes returning from underneath before.

This was not the orderly fleet that had departed, however. Most of them had turned back while others kept going, with the result that the whole sky above the island was a chaotic mess of aircraft coming and going, darting high and low, dodging each other midair landing on the mountains and on rooftops and in the square. Karla flinched as a wing-pounding ornithopter screamed in for a landing on the pebbly beach they’d just left. Yet the whole thing was a dance, a practiced pantomime: so few of the planes hit each other in midair that Karla was certain the pilots were all experienced. On the ground, and on roofs, people were meeting their friends and partners and families as they landed, slicing the injured out of their rigs with long knives, taking their planes apart. Karla heard three shouted arguments, and at least one fistfight.

Her hunch was right, then. Castle Nashido was their job.

Not to mention they definitely had cover.

She blinked the torchlight out of her eyes. Rose was kneeling in front of her. “It’s Karla, right?”

Karla opened her mouth, but no words came out. She nodded dumbly instead.

“Where do you live, Karla?”

Before she could blunder into another mistake, Jenny saved her. “It’s kinda complicated,” she told Rose, clasping her hands in front of her face. “I can explain everything after we get to the inn. We gotta take advantage of the glow while we can.”

Griff came up behind them. “Is she homeless?”

Am I homeless? Her home was as far away as anyone’s. If this whole town couldn’t get there, she surely couldn’t either.

Oh, Mara, she thought, tears filling her eyes. Kio. How am I going to get Kio…?

“Hey,” Griff said, putting a hand on her shoulder. “It’s all right if you don’t want to talk about it. We don’t have much, but we’ll help you however we can.”

“Yeah, I’m…” Karla sniffed. “I’m homeless.”

***

Jenny shifted into the lead as they wound their way through Low Dusk, heading for the McConnells’ tavern. She took their group through shortcuts–alleys barely large enough for Griff and Rose to fit, kicking discarded metal scraps aside, scraping against rough salvaged lumber, wafting aside clouds of sweetly pungent incense smoke. One footbridge passed over a ditch in which someone had built a whole living room, complete with teakettle and liquor rack, with a tarp flapping nearby for rain. Another passed through a longhouse filled entirely with wrenches.

She wondered if Karla the sky girl thought any of this was weird, then realized she had no idea what passed for weird in the sky.

Dusk Street was roiling with pilots and engineers. A healer wearing the eight-pointed star of the Remedium ministered to a man with burns covering half his body, while another man and a woman watched and clung to each other. Rose broke away to help, but the Starman waved her off. Nearby, two aged women compared pieces of a rig that had fallen off a roof: most of the plane was sticking sharply out of the shack where it had landed, twisted beyond recognition.

It reminded Jenny with a tightening in her gut that she’d lost Dr. Griffin’s plane, and that he surely knew, and wasn’t asking about it to be nice. She blinked furiously.

Uncle Griff and Aunt Rose were still trying to squeeze through the gap between houses she’d led them through to reach Dusk Street. Before they could catch up, Jenny siezed her chance to pull Karla aside.

They dodged into the alley behind the pub, where Jenny had briefly stashed her wing earlier that night. “How’s your story?” she asked, once she was face to face with Karla in the cramped space.

“My what?” Karla gulped. “Does that mean, like, how am I doing, or…”

Jenny shut her eyes. “It means is your story straight? Are you gonna tell anybody in there that you’re from the sky?”

Karla’s sun-beaten face paled. “Look, I don’t want what happened on the raft to ever happen again. I won’t say anything. But what about Griff and Rose?”

Good gods, that was tempting. Just tell Uncle Griff and Aunt Rose the whole truth. Let the adults sort it out–they might even finally kiss along the way, like Jenny had known for years they obviously should. She’d been letting those two sort things out her whole life, since long before she knew other children had things called moms and dads, instead of uncles. Or aunts that weren’t really their aunts.

But even as Karla voiced the thought, Jenny’s brain shot it down. Spreading out a secret weakened everyone who knew it. Had to keep it contained.

“Not even them.” She put a finger on her lips. “You’re homeless. You came here alone. You made your own craft that fell in the sea. Ranson rounded us both up one after the other.”

“Jenny, I don’t know how to talk,” Karla pleaded. “What do people say to each other down here? About planes or…or, I don’t know! Sheep!”

“Sheep?”

“I said I don’t know!” Karla covered her face.

“All right. Take it easy.” Jenny glanced to where Griff was helping Rose out of her shortcut. “You don’t have to talk this time. And afterwards, I’ll tell you what’s going on, sound good?”

Karla rubbed her eyes. “You will?”

“Yeah.” A warmth coursed through Jenny as she put a hand on Karla’s shoulder. “I’ll teach you everything. I’ll make you a surface person.”

Karla swallowed once more, and nodded. Jenny followed her to meet the others and enter the brightly lit below-ground pit of the tavern, feeling content that progress was being made.

Which made it all the more of a gut-punch when Calvin McConnell dropped a tray of tankards to the floor the moment Karla reached the bottom step.

Somebody had been singing in the tavern put, someone else plucking a harp. Now, everything was quiet. Jenny pushed her way to the front in time to see her normally-drunk friend point a very sober finger and shout.

“Mara!” he cried. “Mara Harpooneer!”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Monster 3

“Hold up!” Dr. Griffin panted. In the middle of Low Dusk, skirting after Rose between a garbage pit and a pile of rubble that had once been a stack of crates, he collapsed with his hands on his knees, gasping for air.

Rose looked at him, unimpressed. “I ran all the way from the clinic before this, you know.”

“Yeah, well, I was in a fight with a knife-wielding madman,” Griffin managed. “Which I won, by the way. Give me three seconds.”

Rose raised an eyebrow. “One.”

“All right, all right!” Griffin staggered to his feet. “Let’s go. I can do this.”

He caught his second wind as he chased her long coat, its hem flapping through pools of light. Lanterns spilled soft glows, hanging under eaves in the tight alley, swinging in a light and metal-tanged breeze. Rose skimmed left and right through them like she had a map in her brain. Griffin could have made it without following her. Years in Rust Town did that to anybody, even though Rose was relatively new.

Soon they left the warren of pathways behind. The ground sloped more steeply down toward the sea. Low Dusk was drowsy, even with the glow, but behind them, a tide of noise–propellors and shouts and landing gear–was rising in Main Rust.

Ahead, though, was a carpet of seagull cries and waves, a scritch-scritch of talons on rocks. Dr. Griffin went here often. Usually, it made him able to exhale, to breathe in air that wasn’t saturated with steam and soot.

Tonight, though, his thoughts were only on Jenny. He scrambled faster and faster down a dirt trail, kicking rocks down the hillside. A carpet of grass wafted in the wind.

“The dock’s not far,” Rose called over her shoulder. “Do you have a plan?”

“Honestly,” Griffin replied, “I’m kind of assuming she does.”

***

Jenny was fiddling with a small metal canister.

Karla wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do here, but if it were Kio, she’d probably apologize. She was, after all, basically the entire reason they were both in this mess. Without her, Jenny would be back at…Rust Town? By now.

She shifted closer to the younger girl. “I’m sorry about this. I didn’t think–”

“What? Didn’t think anybody on the surface cared about a magic floating castle?” Jenny didn’t look at her. “Don’t talk to me or they’ll tie us up.”

That wasn’t entirely fair. Karla had looked down at the Big Island for year after year, and had imagined every now and then that somebody was looking back. But could those planes really have been trying to reach Castle Nashido? They must have known they had no chance to get there, right?

And where did this thing about us having treasure come from?

Being sold to some Emperor was bad enough, but being the property of a megalomaniac whose desire for riches she couldn’t satisfy sounded quite a bit worse.

She looked around herself. Ranson’s crew were straining at their oars again, pulling them over the waves toward what looked like solid cliff. Which made sense. A slaver’s secret cave wouldn’t just be sitting out in the open–she and Kio had seen fishing boats around here. One could stumble on it far too easily.

Tracing the cliff the other direction, she saw it slope down into a gravelly beach. A rickety fisher’s wharf was barely visible in the moonlight.

Could they swim for it? Ranson hadn’t tied them up, figuring there was nowhere to go, but Karla had swam enough in the reservoir and was strong enough to make it.

No way, she heard Kio say in her head, though Perfect Karla was already swimming. The ocean is so different from our reservoir it’s not funny. There are waves and it’s freezing and everything is salty.

Hearing his voice hardened her resolve. She’d promised to get him down. She had not come to the surface to get sold into slavery by a guy who wouldn’t even row his own raft.

Jenny had managed to pry the top off her canister by the time Karla slid back over to her, keeping her work hidden between her knees from Ranson and the crew. A bit of greyish-brown powder was leaking from the open lid.

“Jenny–”

“Look, Karla or whoever you are, I know you’re sorry. Just let me finish this.”

She stopped herself from asking finish what? and sat back hugging her knees in the center of the raft, wishing her first meetings with other people had gone better.

Soon, however, Jenny slid over toward her, and whispered much more quietly than before–so quietly only Karla could hear the words over the wind and waves.

“Do you happen to have a way to make fire?”

Wanting to help, Karla racked her brains. How many ways had she and Kio made fire before? Bowdrills with salvaged wood, matches from sky kingdoms, that one time they pilfered a pipe from the ruins of an old tavern and lit it by sparking an old lump of coal on the wall and took turns failing to smoke it…

A point of glowing light, much closer than the stars.

“The cigar,” she whispered to Jenny.

She nodded, keeping her voice at a muffled hiss. “I’ll distract him. You grab it.”

Karla held up a hand in what she hoped was the universal gesture for wait.

Jenny waited. Though what Karla could see in her eyes was growing murderous. She hoped it wasn’t some sort of vulgar gesture on the surface.

“Why,” she growled as the raft drew closer to the cliff face, “are we waiting?”

“Shut up down there,” one of the oarsmen snapped. Ranson whirled around, tracing a line across Karla’s eyes with the precious cigar flame. Karla and Jenny snapped their hands behind their backs and looked up at him with innocent gazes.

When he turned away again, Karla made a triangle with her fingers, then pointed to their destination on the seacliff, then the pebble beach.

A second later, Jenny nodded. Karla hoped she understood. Ranson was paddling in a wide arc to get out of the bay’s windblown center as fast as he could, into the shelter of the cliff. If the powder from the canister really was some kind of fuel, they had to set it off in the brief window when the raft was closer to the beach landing than the secret lair.

The oarsmen heaved closer to the Big Island’s cliff. The wind died down. Karla stared at the pebble beach, and vowed she’d get there, with Jenny, or die fighting Ranson’s bid to clamp her in chains.

Meeting the emperor could wait. Karla laid her hand over Jenny’s with three fingers extended.

Two. One.

Jenny shoved the oarsman beside her, slapping his oar hard against the ones on either side of it. She ducked while the burly man swung his hand to strike her.

Ranson spun again, his fine coat whipping behind him, to see the source of the commotion. “That’s it,” he said, scowling. “You. Tie their hands. Feet too, in case they get any ideas about–”

Karla surged up. Ranson had removed the cigar to gesture with it while giving his order–all she had to do was snatch it out of his hand.

The short man lunged, tangling Karla in his ridiculous coat. Jenny was yelling, something like “Now, now now now!” With one more mighty yank, the burning cinder was free, and Karla slammed her hand down, praying to Mara she’d hit the trail of powder Jenny had left.

***

At the bottom of the hill, the path petered out onto the wide crescent of scree where the Rusters had built their dock. Several wharves all stuck out in different directions, all but one made of wood too rotted-through to be useful for much but bird roosts. Several cormorants scattered off into the dusk as Rose dragged Griffin off the path behind a tall upright stone.

“Did you see him?” she asked as they squatted in a pebbly, salt-scented cranny.

“Ranson?” Griffin said. “Yeah. His raft was a few hundred feet–”

A flash lit the night, followed by a clap like a thunderstorm in a bottle. Griffin’s first thought was that some other city council enforcer had let off his canister bomb–but the sound had been too small to be the power they’d bragged about. Unless their bluff had been enormous…

Rose was already around the rock and running for the waves. By the time Griffin caught up, she had shed her apron. He threw off his white coat to land next to hers.

“Come on!” the healer shouted. “She’s in the water!”

Griffin looked up to see a scene he couldn’t have imagined two hours ago. Amid the black offshore night, Master Ranson’s raft was a bright spot, flames licking ten feet up from its deck. Most of the oarsmen were already in the water, some swimming for the cliff wall, some clinging to floating oars and splashing water on the flames. Two of them carried Ranson, who was clutching the side of his face, screaming for them to work faster.

“And catch them! Catch the two girls!” he squealed, when he had spare breath to do so.

Two?

Griffin’s eyes darted down to where a pair of long white foamy spots thrashed through the water. He splashed as far as he could, then dove, started to swim. Rose was beside him, hair plastered to her sodden clothes, dragging herself through the waves.

The two white lines moved closer, resolved themselves, as two oarsmen broke off from the burning raft to chase them. “Get to land!” Griffin shouted. “Ranson won’t try his crap in town. He’s too much of a coward.”

The swimmers were near enough that even in weak moonlight, he could tell one of them was Jenny. A brief memory flashed through his mind, of cradling her in this water once before, as a green cloud drifted high above and the town turned to ash.

She closed the distance surprisingly quickly. Her arms flew around his neck and held tight. He grabbed her legs as well, thrashed until his feet found ground again, began to wade.

Rose, beside him, held another girl in a similar grip. She looked older than Jenny, though not yet an adult. Dark-skinned, yet ash-blond, with a face as weathered as any Ruster’s her age. She could have come from anywhere.

But she must have flown far.

Back on shore, he and Rose scrambled to their feet to help their passengers up. “We gotta go,” was the first thing Jenny said.

Griffin held her shoulders. “You can run on your own?”

“Yes!” she replied so quickly he remembered two of Ranson’s henchmen were still on their tail. Rose looked both of them up and down, pronounced them fit to run, and they ran.

“Get back here!” Ranson wailed in the distance. “I rightfully claimed you!”

But as strong as his oarsmen were, rowing, then swimming, then chasing down a quarry would slow anybody. Griffin, Rose, Jenny, and the other girl had crossed the beach before they made it to shore.

“This is Karla, by the way,” Jenny panted. “She’s from nowhere, but we lost your craft, and now…oh. Oh, everything’s messed up.”

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Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Monster 2

Rose passed the knife back to Griffin handle-first as the engineer picked himself up out of the road. “I’m sure you had things under control,” she said, offering him a hand that he waved away, “but I just thought I could–”

“That was awesome!” shouted the sky-shattering voice of Guy Carpenter, who slipped away from his mother’s grasp and raced up to Griffin and Rose. “You threw that guy off the roof! And then you just–bam!”

Lost for words, he clapped them both on the back, barely reaching.

“Go back and help your mother,” Rose said, gently shoving Guy toward where Jada had pitched Aiden out of the trough. The older woman was tying the bandit’s hands and feet together.

As she turned, Griffin took his chance to study her face. Her mussed brown hair covered her forehead and fell past her shoulders, notwithstanding a failed attempt to tie it back. It went everywhere, framing her gently curved nose and eyes he’d always noticed were a complicated shade of hazel. Never the same twice.

She turned back to him and he glanced away, not quite quickly enough for her not to catch him staring.

“Where’s Dan?” he asked, so there wouldn’t be an awkward silence.

Rose half-smiled. “Minding the workshop. I think he can see my door from there, too. Makes me feel better to have someone besides the patients standing guard.”

“What about the rest of the city council? And their bombs?”

“Don’t know. But nobody’s exploded yet.”

“How did you know to come here?”

“Your niece got herself into some trouble up at the infirmary,” Rose checked behind her to see Jada restrain Guy from kicking the unconscious Aiden. “I followed as soon as the fight she started moved on. I’m not surprised I arrived just in time for something.”

Griffin scratched the back of his head. He could practically feel the white in there today. “She started what?”

“A fight.” Rose shrugged. “It was a good idea. But if she’s gonna keep calling me her aunt, I’m going to use that power to insist she be in deep trouble.”

Griffin didn’t reply. A knot in his gut had tied and tightened. He told himself Jenny could handle the craft, that she’d wanted to go, that he’d had no choice…but it was precisely when people said that that the choice was most important.

“Where is she, by the way?” Rose asked. “Somewhere safe?”

He looked at her, and swallowed, and her healer’s wisdom told her the truth instantly.

With one step she was in his face. “You let her fly?

“Aiden forced me to!” The words sounded feeble as they left his mouth.

“You threw him off a roof!” she shouted. “You couldn’t have done that forty-five seconds earlier so a twelve-year-old wouldn’t have to fly to the sphere by herself!?”

With nothing to say, Griffin held her gaze, racking his brains to think of how to make this up to both of them.

Information. Need information.

He took off downhill, toward the seacliff, and Rose kept pace.

In the quest for more working space, some Rusters had built wooden decks out from the cliff top, and lived and worked over empty space. At least one hanging airstrip emerged from the twilight as Griffin and Rose panted their way toward a better view. With the town emptied out by the Glow, nobody stopped the from racing onto one of the bridges leading between these suspended shacks. Griffin braced himself against a doorway–there were no rails–and Rose pulled up short.

Planes buzzed over the ocean like hornets from a kicked nest. The smaller ones that hadn’t been built for distance were already turning back, but they had to weave through the flock of late launchers. Those that couldn’t ducked underneath and veered hard to avoid crashing into the cliff. Everywhere Griffin looked, a dozen aircraft were circling, diving, climbing, pulsing, pedaling, skimming the waves. Barges plied the whitecaps, some of them prying survivors out of their doomed aircraft, some of them ransacking the craft themselves.

None of them were his. None of them contained Jenny.

Rose nudged his arm hard and pointed down at one particularly large raft. It had no sails, no mast–just sacks of lumpy misshapen items, a dozen people straining at the oars, and one squat, practically square-shaped man in a fancy coat.

“Master Ranson,” Griffin muttered.

Rose hadn’t let go of his arm. “Edward, we can’t let him get anywhere near her. The best thing he’ll do is steal your aircraft.”

The deck squeaked under Griffin’s feet as he shook. “But what if Jenny lands back at our airstrip?”

“She’ll be fine!” Rose took off again. “We need to be there if she lands in the ocean. Or anywhere near his barge.”

With a deep breath, Griffin followed in her wake.

***

Two of the crew shipped their oars and dragged Karla and the girl aboard by their collars. The oarsmen were all large, dour-looking men and women, and Karla had no idea what sort of island produced people like this–or whether all surface people just perpetually looked like they’d just had the same bridge collapse on them for the third time in a month.

The moment the crew holding the girl pilot let go, she made a break for the water. The raft rocked, the short man in charge barked and order, and a massive oarsmen yanked her back on deck, not letting go this time.

“Make for the cavern. No more distractions,” the short man in the purple coat ordered. He spoke to his crew entirely in sharp, clipped statements, like they were half-trained animals. He was chewing on some sort of rolled cigar, its tip glowing orange in the deep-blue night.

When he turned to his captives, however, his tone became treaclier. Karla didn’t like him. She hoped the girl pilot was nice, since otherwise the surface was really not sending its best humans to greet her.

“You’re Dr. Griffin’s little apprentice, aren’t you?” he said, and grinned. “The madman’s daughter. How adorable.”

“My name is Jenny,” the pilot spat, “I’m his niece, he’s not a madman, and nothing about this situation is adorable. Let me go. My plane is sinking.”

“A salient argument for why we shouldn’t rescue it,” the raft’s master replied. “It’s in the ocean, ergo it’s failed, ergo your mad uncle has another mark on his record.”

“Shut up!” Jenny’s face grew red. “Uncle Griff’s plane made it farther than anyone. I could have reached the sphere. I just turned back to…to…”

Her eyes drifted to Karla.

The raftmaster chuckled. “No need to censor yourself, Jenny Griffin. She’s already told us everything. You brought back the queen of the castle in the sky.”

Jenny wiped her tears with her sodden sleeve. Incredulity filled her face. “You’re…you’re from the sphere?”

The sound of the waves, the thud of distant propellors, a seagull high up in the sky–all the noises of the scene amplified, filled Karla’s ears until Jenny’s words sounded faraway.

“I…told you the dragon wasn’t my craft,” she half-whispered.

“That’s not the whole story, is it?” Jenny crawled toward her, rocking the raft further. “You didn’t launch from Rust Town. You were descending.

“Then she got where she was going!” The raftmaster pointed to a spot along the seacliff and glared at his rowers. “Double time. We’ve got the most valuable hostage in this grubby island’s history on our hands.”

Karla still hardly heard a word.

This was the Big Island. The place she and Kio had dreamed of. The capital of the world.

What was Rust Town?

Also, this girl–Jenny–she wanted to reach Nashido. The place Karla had spent her life trying to escape, and Jenny believed as strongly in getting there as Karla ever had in leaving.

People driven toward one thing, one thing only, could recognize each other on sight. That was Karla’s first lesson in interacting with surface people.

Her second came soon after.

“Take us back to shore,” Jenny demanded, her voice shaking. “Now.”

Ranson laughed, louder and louder with each second, until his oarsmen joined in.

“I won’t be doing that, little girl,” he said. “Do you know who I am?”

“Should I?” Jenny asked.

“Yeah, should she?” Karla added.

“I’m Ranson,” the raftmaster said. “Wealthiest slaver on the island. I’ve been to Toral half a dozen times. And this time, you’re both coming with me.”

“If we…refuse?” That sounded to Karla like the right thing to say.

“Why would you?” Master Ranson looked her dead in the eye, chewing on his cigar like he intended to swallow it. “You’re going to meet the Emperor.”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Monster 1

Karla’s eyes twitched open.

Her hands–human hands, pale and rigid–were clinging onto something, without her consent.

She was sprawled flat on something, every single inch of her skin smarting like it had been struck with a paddle. Her hood flapped back and forth as her hair streamed above her. Sky and earth and sea wheeled before her in a disjointed dream.

Had she fallen asleep? Was this what birds dreamt about?

Wait. Something else was going on. Something important, that she’d spent a lot of time thinking about, and that Karla predicted would have her a lot more worried in a few seconds.

Oh, right. I’m falling to my death.

***

Whether or not his niece believed him, Dr. Griffin had lived an interesting enough youth to know what to do when someone lunged at him with a knife.

The first thing, he remembered clearly, was that you didn’t want to lunge back at your attacker like a drunken rhinoceros. So he dodged backward instead, and Aiden’s manic swipe of the blade swept through the air where his body had been.

The second thing was to gauge your attacker’s frame of mind. What did they want?

Dr. Griffin was pretty sure Aiden wanted to kill him. He might even have a good time doing it. But the city council man didn’t want to blow himself up–he had the look of a man who enjoyed life. So Griffin probably didn’t have to worry too much about the explosives.

Except that while the bomb was live, the people surging through the sky above him or banging on his door would be too afraid to approach and help him.

He backed hastily up the launch ramp out of the scrubby courtyard, so Finn would have a harder time circling behind him. Aiden lunged upward, chasing him up toward the airstrip, the sharp edge glinting blue in the faint light scattering off the crystal.

Griffin wished he wasn’t so good at picking out knives.

Finn threw his whole body, missed completely, bowling back down the ramp.

Griffin’s heart gave a wild pound to remind him this was not his job. He was supposed to be a scientist, a servant of the world, but in Rust Town nothing was objective. And it certainly wasn’t sacred.

“What are you even trying to do?” he shouted at Aiden, dashing backwards across the airstrip. The wheeled landing gear sat near the ramp, thrown back by Jenny’s launch. Griffin grabbed it and flung it between him and the bandit. Its wheels squeaked in protest.

“Win this town forever!” Aiden’s next swing lodged his blade in the cart. He dislodged it with a yank. “Why do I have to keep explaining things to you people?”

“You’re not going to use that big bomb of yours!” Griffin tried to shove the cart down the ramp at Aiden, but the wheels didn’t turn. “That makes you basically just a dumbass with a knife. Which is hardly original around here. The only way to be less creative would be if you were drunk.”

As Aiden leveled his knife again, Griffin’s eyes alit on a crowbar one of the women who launched before them had dropped.

It would have to do. Aiden plunged his knife down, but Griffin scooped up the crowbar and flung it up to block his arm from landing. The bandit wrestled, but Griffin had swung too many hammers to be a total weakling.

They separated, circling each other on the airstrip. Let’s have a real fight.

***

Karla wedged herself on top of the skycraft as comfortably as she could. It wasn’t easy–wherever this thing came from, it refused point-blank to behave like Raven. It was always slightly too long, or too narrow, or its wings were beating at an angle just different enough to feel weird but not so different she could immediately put her finger on it.

Now that she wasn’t moving around, the craft managed to fall slightly less and glide a little more. Its pilot hadn’t spoken yet–probably still thought Karla was unconscious.

She’d have to make first contact.

Here goes, she thought. First human in your life who isn’t Kio. Say the right thing.

Her throat siezed up, but she forced through anyway. She’d always dreamed of this moment, known it would be difficult, prepared mentally and emotionally. She knew exactly what to say.

“I don’t think you’re flying the plane right!” she shouted.

She hadn’t planned that.

Clinging to the top of the craft that threatened to buck her into the freezing ocean any second, Karla felt a cold sweat. She’d have expected this kind of awkwardness from Kio. Not her.

Then she realized the pilot probably couldn’t hear her anyway.

Instead, she watched the world wheel and hung on desperately. She had never been this close to the surface before, and it thrilled her blood and bones so much she barely knew she wasn’t dreaming.

The stars and clouds were so far.

The mountains were above her.

Could she actually hear the ocean? Nah, blood rushing in her ears. But she did hear something soon enough.

“Why don’t we switch places, then?” came a high-pitched shout from under the wings.

“No, I–uh–I didn’t mean–” she spluttered. “I’m Karla!”

“You’re supposed to be unconscious!” the voice bawled.

“I can help you!” she shouted. She wanted to be sick–even with her strong raven’s constitution–but she’d still been able to observe the strange plane’s flight path. And extrapolate.

In the distance lay the lights of the Big Island, crowned with the glowing blue crystal. The craft’s nose wavered across an average path pointing directly at that plateau.

“Can you drop my weight by fifty pounds?” the pilot shouted.

The plane lurched downward. The pilot gave up even more altitude to level it out.

“You can’t make it!”

“What?”

“To the city!” Karla stopped herself from crawling forward. “We’re too heavy, and you’re already too low!”

Another few lurches up and down. The pilot snapped, “Look, I don’t know how things work on your dragon, but–”

“Wait, what?” Karla nearly lost her grip. With effort, she fought back into place, fighting the forward sweep of the craft over the ocean. “That’s not my dragon!”

“Then where did you fall from!?”

The lights swung lower. They were pointed directly at the seacliff, snaggletooth rocks rearing up below. As though they were beating on the sea, not the other way around.

“We don’t have time for this!”

“What do we have time for?” A pair of hands turned white on a cockpit bar, all she could see of her new friend. “Help me!”

At last, Karla risked throwing herself forward. For just a second, long enough for the pilot to notice, she pointed at a wide, empty barge floating in the black sea beneath.

***

Winning a swordfight with workbench tools atop a rickety airstrip, Dr. Griffin thought, was a matter that could be approached scientifically.

A low-flying plane, one of the first returning after the frenzy of the glow, swept over their heads and forced both him and Aiden to duck. That was when he started thinking.

He reared back, heading away from his workshop toward the street. His blows landed on Aiden’s knife arm, whirling his crowbar to clear a space in front of him. It was heavy, unwieldy, but it kept the mugger from getting close.

And with each step, each swing, Dr. Griffin thought more.

What were explosives? Chemical compounds that released enormous force when combusted, sometimes in a chain reaction.

Where did they come from? Barring fancy synthesis labs like the one rumor had it existed in the capital, from special types of ore–none of which Rust Town or its island had available in nature.

Which meant Aiden and the city council had bought them from an off-archipelago trader. And even with their ill-gotten gains, there was only one type they could have afforded.

Griffin swung a mad circle at Aiden’s face to make him feint back, wielding his superior range to get a look at the canister.

Yes! There were trace red marks on the rim–the telltale sign of a brimstone-saltpeter mixture that would be useless when damp.

Aiden was driving him steadily toward the edge of the runway. The street below was lined with forge-houses, smaller than Kalends and Kalends, but still in need of a great deal of water. With not much space to keep it in, the troughs tended to end up lining the street.

Griffin estimated he had a fifty-fifty shot.

“Help!” he yelled at the top of his lungs to all the shacks around. “I’m being robbed!”

In a hoarse croak, Aiden snarled back, “Nobody’s coming to–”

Crowbar-first, Griffin barrelled inside his assailant’s reach and wrapped both his arms around Aiden’s waist.

The bandit yelped. The knife slashed open Griffin’s shirt with the white-hot crackle of a near miss.

He bore them both down over the edge of the airstrip.

They didn’t have far to fall–Rust Town was a city that lay low to the ground. Griffin slammed hard into the grassy street, and lifted his head to see Aiden land exactly where he’d hoped: in a blacksmith’s trough.

His coin toss had paid off.

As Aiden struggled to rise, spitting out water, footsteps pounded around the side of the cluster of workshops. Rose, the healer woman, was leading a group of four or five other Rusters who had already landed or never left. She was armed with a long wrench, while the others had weapons of various sizes and hefts.

“His bomb’s neutralized,” Griffin gasped out. His side throbbed where he’d landed on it. “I got it wet.”

“Good.” Without another word, Rose walked up to Aiden and struck him on the head. Her medical skills paid off: she knew exactly how hard to hit him to knock him out without killing him. Transferring the wrench to one hand, she fished out Griffin’s knife.

***

The next few moments convinced Karla that this pilot could be reasonable. Once she accepted that she couldn’t land at the city, she began a slow, deft corkscrew down toward the sea.

Karla’s heart pounded wildly. The surface was down there. The sea, close enough to touch. Ten years and she was about to make it. Ten years…

She wished Kio were here. Their promise to each other stuck in her like a toothache.

The people on the barge waved at them as they circled, setting Karla’s blood afire again–that was more people than she’d ever seen in her life, except in stilted crowd drawings in Kio’s books.

Suddenly she had other things to worry about as the sea rushed up. It had been nice and far away before, and now it was so close she could see scales on the waves.

And then in way too short a time the craft splashed into the ocean with a noise like a bone dragon hitting the reservoir.

The water rushed up around Karla and “frigid” was the only word to describe it. She’d been cold before–she lived in the sky, for Mara’s sake–but not in a way that reached everywhere, that made her furs sodden and useless, that felt like she was being stabbed with icicles from every direction.

This much water should not have existed anywhere, unless it was in a cloud. Those were bad enough.

Plus, she had to swim.

Her outer fur clung to her body, dragging her down. She peeled it off, thrashing foam everywhere, then peeled the second off too, then looked around for the barge.

The craft bucked, and she swore she heard a strangled cry from under the water.

The pilot!

“Help!” she called out to the barge. “She’s trapped!”

A squat man barked an order to the oarsmen, who were already sculling the surface toward Karla and the wrecked skycraft. “Who are you?” the man–captain?–called as he drew near.

“I don’t know who she is!” she shouted back. “But my name’s Karla! I’m from Nashido!”

“From where?”

They don’t know? Why does this even matter? “The castle in the sky!”

Every single man and woman on the barge froze. Even the oarsmen stopped rowing.

“She’s going to drown!” Karla yelled. No change.

Screw this. They weren’t going to get there fast enough.

Karla sucked in her breath and dived. She knew where safety catches would likely be located, so she closed her eyes and felt along the harness straps until she located a buckle on each one. Then flipping them open was simple.

The girl revived in her arms as soon as they broke the surface. Both of them gasped gratefully for air. Above water, Karla could see the pilot was a slip of a child–younger than her, with straight brown hair plastered against her forehead and a body that barely seemed to weigh anything.

Blinking salt out of her eyes, she turned to see the raft full of gobsmacked oarsmen, paddling furiously toward Karla.

“What did you say to them?” the girl asked.

Karla paled. “Something I’m thinking I shouldn’t have.”

I’m a self-supported artist, and I rely on donations to keep bringing you The Clockwork Raven. Check out my Patreon to see the bonus content you can get if you pledge. Even $1 a month helps–and gets you a personal shout-out!

Thanks to Lynne, David, Paul, and Thomas for their continued support.

Treasure 6

Jenny leapt out over the grass trail that passed for a street. Her stomach plummeted when the airstrip vanished. She decided to leave it on the ground.

The next instant she was passing over other roofs. The ornithopter pitched upward on a thermal from a steam vent, nearly flipping her. Throwing her weight forward to right herself, she swerved as somebody’s prop flyer roared overhead.

Her feet skimmed a roof. She ran, jumped again into a sky filled with machines. Craft of all shapes and sizes were taking off from everywhere, every flat surface in the city, and some others. Craning her neck up, clawing for lift, she saw at least a dozen craft set off in a flock from the highest ridge of the mountain. A raft with a single massive propellor lumbered through the sky just under the seacliff, pedaled by what looked like twelve people, some of whom were still drinking. Far to her port, she saw the crystal green, covered in the tangled wreckage of scores of crafts that had hit each other midair. The City Council and their bombs were nowhere to be seen.

At last, she hit one more updraft, and with a somersaulting stomach found herself picking up height. She beat the wings a few times using the foot pedals, and found she could rise even further.

Something felt different this time. Dr. Griffin might have actually perfected his invention.

Jenny shook that thought out of her head. Pride didn’t fly planes.

She banked toward the seacliff, alternating beats and glides. Over the ridge, she could see people trying yet another approach: flat barges floated in the dark water, some Rusters straining at oars, others joining hands to link the rafts into airstrips. One wind-up prop plane attempted to leap from a lone barge without a runway and plummeted nose-first into the water. His oarsmen pulled him aboard, letting the aircraft sink.

Jenny winced. Lucky the sea was calm tonight.

The cliff dropped away, leaving Jenny over empty sea, the town lights shrinking behind her. She swept over the barges along with the handful of skycraft keeping pace. Ahead, the mountains, scoured grey teeth with no haven at their base, jutted from the sea toward the sphere.

Her breath caught. The plane dipped before she could focus and warp the wings back to level.

It had never seemed so close before.

Risking a brief glance from side to side, Jenny counted only eight other craft still in the sky with her. One of them banked back toward Rust Town as she watched, vanishing into the cluster of lights.

The constellations came into focus above her, the Compass Rose and the Orchard Keeper and the Seamstress, beckoning her closer to the sphere. Her goal was even beginning to resolve itself into the castle some claimed it was–Jenny picked out a tower here, a buttress there.

In the sky, skimming half a mile over the whitecap waves, she let the elation in.

Jennifer Hunter Griffin owned the sky. She couldn’t even see any of the other craft anymore. They all must have given up. Her next task was what Rust Town engineers all called “the Great Corkscrew”: the calculation that any craft would need to make several upward circles to reach the altitude of the sphere.

That was fine. She and her majestic craft were alone with the treasure-house in a dance the size of the ocean. They would learn each others’ secrets. She would coax her way toward a landing if it took all night.

Then she’d take whatever she could carry, as proof, with the side benefit of buying her and her uncle a palace somewhere far away from Rust Town, where only Rose and maybe Calvin got to visit. And a trebuchet to fling the city council into the ocean.

Jenny willed herself not to get hypnotized. A thousand things needed her attention. The wings had to be trimmed, like sails, and the pedals wouldn’t run themselves. Wind rushed in her ears like twin herds of horses racing past her, she felt sure she’d emptied her stomach somewhere over the seacliff, and she had to gain another hundred feet to make it safely over the gap in the far mountains that were not so far anymore…

…and…

…before the gap, someone was falling.

All right, I’m hallucinating. Uncle Griff had warned her about altitude sickness. There was an oxygen tank built into the body somewhere.

The shadow fell past the top of the ridge, serene and plummeting and unmistakably human.

Jenny checked herself for the other symptoms–lightheadedness, shallow breathing. But for a twelve-year-old girl hurtling through the sky, she felt remarkably calm.

Until she realized that if she wasn’t hallucinating, there must have been a real craft quite a bit higher than hers, abandoned by a pilot in real danger. But where was it?

I’m asking the wrong questions, she thought suddenly. How fast do I have to dive to catch them?

Quick calculations gave her the answer. She banked her wings down–

–and stopped, forcing the numbers to reconstitute in her head even as she had another thought: she would never complete the Great Corkscrew with the weight of another person on her craft.

Yet the pilot was falling. Jenny could still see her outline against the moonlight on the granite.

It couldn’t be.

It wasn’t fair!

“He finally figured it out!” she roared aloud. “My uncle got it right! I’m so damn close!”

She banked the wings down on the calculated course, and dove. The choice was easy. But she didn’t have to be happy about it.

In the second before plunging, Jenny happened to glance up, and saw the craft. Its outline was so bizarre it burned into her mind. The thing was twice as high above the ocean as she was, and still beating its wings–wings that looked as leathery and jagged as a bat’s, with a tangled mass of ropes instead of a rear propellor, and a cockpit that looked like something too ridiculous to name.

Yet, hurtling downward in pursuit of the falling pilot, Jenny said the word to herself anyway.

Dragon. The falling pilot’s craft had looked like a dragon. She’d have to remember that for Dr. Griffin.

Later. Her whole world had flipped 90 degrees, the sea before her, the mountains her sky. She swept past the pilot, kicked one of the pedals, swung a tight circle underneath them–

–with a bone-shattering whump, the pilot sprawled atop Jenny’s wings.

Not just a pilot. A girl. The pilot was a girl, not much older than her.

Jenny throttled back with a lurch of her entire upper body, and failed. With the extra weight, not only could she not gain altitude, she couldn’t pull her way out of the dive.

And to her left, the lights of Rust Town were already level with her. She wasn’t getting that lift back.

She ground her teeth. Whoever this girl was, she had better be grateful.

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